Melbourne Heavy Hitters Dead: “We enjoy melody as much as we enjoy brutality”

Handmade collage by B.

Dead are a band that don’t fit neatly into the heavy music community, their sludge metal goes beyond the rules and pushes the parameters incorporating lighter melodies and interesting elements. Every facet of this band is thoughtful and well-crafted, even right down to their album packaging which is illustrated by guitarist-vocalist Jace and laid out and screenprinted by drummer-vocalist Jem. They’re the deep feeling and thinking person’s heavy band. Today we’re premiering the homemade clip for song ‘Grifted Apart’. We spoke to Jem about it and their new album Raving Drooling out on their own label We Empty Rooms Records.

What do you love about playing the drums?

JEM: [Laughs] It’s a very physical instrument and that probably brings with it endorphins from exercise, it’s a happy side effect from playing the drums. I didn’t really actively seek out the drums in the beginning, I started learning because my older brother was getting some lessons through a family friend that happened to be a drum teacher and they owed my dad a favour… [pauses] …oh my god there’s an enormous kangaroo about a foot away from me [laughs nervously].

It’s an accompanying instrument really. For the first time ever, yesterday I started recording some solo stuff which is kind of a result of this isolation stuff. Drums in general means that you’re playing with someone and that’s something I’ve always loved about music, the interaction with the other human beings that you play with. That’s probably why I’ve played in a lot of two-pieces, like this conversation now, it’s easier to have a conversation with two people than it is with six or seven.

How did you and Jace first meet?

JEM: He’s from all over the place, but he was living in Lismore when I first met him. He was playing in a band from there and he needed some shows down in Melbourne. I have no idea how he discovered my band then, it was in the MySpace days. I booked some shows for him and shortly after he moved to Melbourne, he had some music that he wanted to play with people. I found myself for the first and only time in my life since I picked up a pair of drumsticks not really with a band. I agreed to do some demos with him. Honestly I wasn’t super jazzed in the beginning but he was such a lovely dude. I wanted to just get back on the horse. It’s like someone going “I should get back into dating because I’ve just broke up with my long term partner” [laughs].

Really quickly that turned into a band called Fangs Of… a three-piece that proceeded Dead. Very quickly that band became really active and productive. We literally have not stopped playing since then, that was 2007. That band lasted a few years, Mikey the other guy in it didn’t really have the passion that we had, the drive to keep going; you have to drive long distances and might get abused by people or shut down by venues, stuff like that—it can be hard work. Dead just ended up forming out of necessity because we were the only two left that shared the desire that we wanted to keep touring and releasing stuff.

You mentioned that you weren’t so jazzed when you guys first started playing together; when did you start to feel excited?

JEM: Probably within a couple of hours [laughs]. What was strange to me is that I never in my life have had to seek out people to play music with; I started really young, I started gigging when I was fourteen. I did at least two shows a week in Melbourne from the age of fourteen to somewhere into my 20s really. I’ve always just played with the people around me, I guess I’m a bit lucky that I knew really great people and played in bands that were very democratic, sometimes painfully so. When I said I wasn’t so jazzed, I come from an improvisational background, I never learnt covers or never learnt to play in the style of others; my brain struggled with even basic song structures. I struggled to compute Jace’s songs because I hadn’t had a part in writing them. It was more I just didn’t think it was my strength, I’m not good at playing a verse, chorus kind of thing. Really quickly Jace just started to write music that more suited the style of the players, it’s a real strength of his.

Is improvisation important now when you guys are creating?

JEM: Yeah, it’s hugely important to me. Because there’s the two of us it’s mostly unwritten, we don’t have to verbalise because we tend to be in the same frequency as each other. For me, I’ve never played a song the same way twice, I just have that in me. When we practise it’s not as improvisational as I would naturally be. I think Jace is always up for elaborating on something or changing it. Usually he’ll bring in something solid and we’ll start from there. There’s no rules though, we can write music any way we want.

What music were you listening to growing up?

JEM: I was born in ’85 so I pre-date streaming and readily available music by a far bit. At about five I really got into music and became obsessed with it. I was lucky I have an older brother ahead of the game and that was aware of what’s being pitched at teenagers. I just remember really liking music, it almost wouldn’t have mattered what kind, just the actual medium was exciting and you had to take what you could get.

Early on I was drawn to things like Metallica, Megadeth, The Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana but, I always thought none of those bands were good at executing this as much as stuff from the ‘60s and ‘70s. Having a six-year-old mind I probably didn’t have the language for it but I remember listening to The Beatles on a pair of headphones and thinking it was amazing and so exciting! I felt like the music that was coming out now at the time wasn’t quite as exciting. I just wasn’t aware there was great music going on at the time, as a kid I didn’t have access to the Butthole Surfers. I remember hearing Ministry as a six-year-old and being a bit scared but the song ‘Cannibal Song’ stuck in my head for so long that it wasn’t until I was in high school that I ended up being able to get a copy.

When I was in primary school I bought the second Mr. Bungle album on CD and was so mortified, I thought I wasted so much money on something unlistenable. I bought it because there was a connection to Faith No More. Three of four years later, I got to see them live at an under 18’s show and it was mind blowing and I went back and listened to it. I realised the album was incredible but it’s really hard work to listen to. I didn’t have the language to understand it as a kid. A lot of my favourite records I can’t listen to too often because they take a lot of energy to listen to. I’m not going to put on the last Harvey Milk album if I’ve got really important work to do, because I’ll be too distracted with trying to understand the music; I’ll happily put on a Beatles record because it’s really familiar or trashy pop stuff because it doesn’t take much effort for me to understand it.

In April you put out your latest record Raving Drooling, it’s really heavy to it but still has a lightness and humour.

JEM: Coming from the improvising background, I genuinely take a lot of pleasure in playing very light and dynamic stuff in Dead. Playing with Jem he challenged me as a player to work on my strength of endurance of playing heavy for extended periods of timer rather than going up and down all the time. We don’t just want to do the same thing that’s been done before, a lot of that heavier stuff that’s kind of like us, alternative metal, is often lacking melody or humour or dynamics—those are the areas we like to explore. We just do what we like. We enjoy melody as much as we enjoy brutality. Melody in heavy music is a rarity because there’s a vulnerability to it, people don’t want to admit that or talk about that. If you get up there and just sing gruff, gruff, gruff stuff – that’s fine I’m not canning it – you don’t have to reveal yourself as much. We like the challenge and the exhilaration that comes with playing live and being a bit more vulnerable. We’re used to it because we’ve spent a long time playing music in often hostile environments, we’ve built up a tolerance for that [laughs].

Where did your album title Raving Drooling come from?

JEM: ‘Raving and Drooling’ was the original name of the Pink Floyd song ‘Sheep’ off the album Animals. I just always loved that album. We’re quite big fans of Pink Floyd, they had kind of the same habit that we do, they’d go tour and playing all the material that they hadn’t yet recorded, meaning the audience would sit through a few hours of material they’ve never heard. We do that a lot, our fans are always willing to go with it. Our fans are never upset that we don’t play this hit or that hit, because we don’t have hits. We always have themes to our records vaguely, as we were making this record to I said it Jace, “This is going to be our Animals” whatever that means. As an album it’s a bit more aggressive than the last one we made, that came from that Roger Waters kind of cynical vibe he has.

We’ve premiering the clip for song ‘Grifted Apart’; can you tell me a little bit about that song?

JEM: I don’t really know what ‘Grifted Apart’ is about, it’s more of an energy to us. That whole side of the record that it’s from is our version of heavy metal. Jace just made that clip last week, as far as I know he shot it on his phone and edited it on his home computer. He’s done stop motion stuff for us before, this time he said it would take too long though. We never really play the song live. Most of the lyrics would be written and sung by Jace. We make things vague so we can give credit to the listener and they can interpret it in their own way. It also allows the song to evolve as we grow. We’re a very 50/50 split it down the middle band with writing. If you want to do something more specific you just need to be a solo artist.

Will you be writing specific stuff for your solo stuff then?

JEM: It’s all ambient percussion. Our friend from New Zealand is putting together a compilation and he wants people to only record in this isolation time. Jace and I both try to leave things open to interpretation, so they can mean different stuff to different people.

One of my favourite songs on the record is ‘Follow The Breathing’.

JEM: I’m really happy with how that turned out. That whole first whole side of the record is really just heavy rockin’ tracks and one of the problems with recording stuff like that is well, we can play stuff like that very well live – that’s our bread and butter – there’s a lot of energy and it can be hard to capture when you’re in the studio. With a song like ‘Follow The Breathing’ it’s the complete opposite, we composed it with the purpose of recording it rather than playing live. There’s two different ways of playing: the live way that’s a bit more aggressive and rougher on the edges; then there’s the studio way which is a bit more considered. At the end when the synths come in you have Joe Preston of the Melvins, High On Fire, Harvey Milk fame. He’s on one side playing the synths then our friend Veronica Avola is on the other side, in the other channel, reacting to him. She plays synths with us when we’re in the US.

Creston Spiers from Harvey Milk is also on your album on the song ‘Nunchukka Superfly’.

JEM: It was heaps of fun and a learning experience. The fun thing about being a two-piece is that we have a lot of room if we want to involve other people. Creston was an interesting one, I worked with him on releasing his solo record, we had gone back and forth and spoken on the phone a bit; we had a good understanding of where we were at. It was a bit challenging for me because I thought he’d do anything he wants but he wrote back to me and said I needed to give him direction. It was such a weird feeling having to direct someone who I think is by far a superior musician to me and someone I look up to. He was making incredible records when I was still in primary school! I had to give him a briefing on how to do the solo. He emailed me back and said he was just going to do it then, so he did and sent it back. It took him half an hour.

The art on the new album is pretty cool.

JEM: Jace has done the art for every record we’ve ever done. I do the layout and screenprinting. On this particular record we got our friend Simon from the band Pissbolt to do the colouring. One of his jobs is that he is a professional colourer of comic books. We gave him a briefing of the colours we wanted him to use and he went for it. In the heavy music world it’s nice to play something brutal but make sure there’s always something pink, because it’s such a world that’s dominated by how everything has to be black and dark—that’s not really how we are as people.

Please check out: DEAD. Raving Drooling out on We Empty Rooms. Dead on Facebook. Dead on Instagram.